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Creating a safer way to practice high school football

Imagine if someone told you the best way to prepare for a car crash was to be in a series of car crashes each week. This is basically the logic that has permeated football practice for years.

The accepted way to prepare players for the high-speed impacts of a game was to subject them to those same impacts in practice, toughen ’em up by tenderizing them like beef. But the growing awareness and acknowledgment of the dangers of concussions and subconcussive hits has forced a sea change in football culture at the NFL level.

The days of turning players into human battering rams day after day in practice are as outmoded as the rotary telephone. The NFL has entered an age of enlightenment — and litigation avoidance.

But that evolution in approach hasn’t trickled down as extensively to the high school level, where the head-bangers ball lives on. Terry O’Neil wants to change that.

Based on the high school football experience of his son, the longtime sports television executive and former New Orleans Saints senior vice president has developed an initiative called Practice Like Pros that aims to provide high school coaches with the same contact-limiting practice techniques that are used by NFL and high-level college coaches.

The first Practice Like Pros colloquium will take place Saturday at 11 a.m. in Worcester at the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts. Among those speaking at the presentation, which is open to the public, will be former Bears and Saints coach Mike Ditka, former NFL player Patrick Kerney, and noted concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu.

The presentation will show high school coaches how to teach concepts and techniques without full-speed, full-contact practice drills, using footage from the Cleveland Browns, Stanford University, and Dartmouth College.

O’Neil, a 16-time Emmy Award winner who served as executive producer of both CBS Sports and NBC Sports (he’s the guy who put John Madden and Pat Summerall together), came up with the idea after watching his son Liam endure an injury-filled career at Greenwich (Conn.) High School.

Liam, who is planning to play quarterback at Tufts, where he’ll be a freshman in the fall, suffered six injuries during his high school career, including two concussions. Four of the injuries, including one of the concussions, happened in practice.

“After 33 years of watching the best, most skilled, and efficient practices, I’m watching another level of football practice. I’m shocked and horrified by what I’m seeing on the playing field,” said O’Neil.

“I’m seeing orthopedic injuries, concussions. I saw a horrific number of injuries that led me to conclude that this is the most obvious thing in the world. If the pros can get ready for Sunday without hurting each other then certainly these kids can get ready for Friday night without hurting each other.”

The Boston-based Sports Legacy Institute, a nonprofit cofounded by Cantu dedicated to the study, treatment, and prevention of brain trauma, reported that there were 350,000 concussions that resulted from practice in high school football last year as compared with just three resulting from practice in the NFL.

“The NFL doesn’t have nearly the amount of hitting in practice that high schools do,” said Cantu, who is also co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. “The number of hits to the head that a high school player is taking is more than professionals. It’s obviously backwards.”

Due to changes that were ushered in with the collective bargaining agreement reached in 2011, NFL teams are now only allowed a total of four hours of on-field instruction per day during training camp; any padded practice may only last up to three hours. Teams are limited to a total of 14 full-pads practices during the 17-week regular season, 11 of which must come in the first 11 weeks of the season.

The thought now is by lessening collisions in practice you’ll lower players’ susceptibility to brain trauma.

The reality is that football is an inherently violent game. It’s not a contact sport. It’s a collision sport. That’s not going to change. There always will be an implicit risk for those who decide to play it.

But what is happening is the most substantive change to the fabric of football since President Theodore Roosevelt prodded its keepers to save it from extinction by adopting the forward pass.

Concussion prevention demands changing attitudes and techniques at the grass-roots level of the game. Coaches can do it or someone will do it for them.

In 2010, Massachusetts passed a law requiring schools to document and report concussions to the Department of Public Health. Several states, including Washington, Arizona, and Texas, the epicenter of high school football and home of Friday night lights, have passed guidelines aimed at reducing the amount of full-speed contact in high school football practices.

One of the biggest backers of O’Neil’s program is Sam Wyche, who spent 18 years in the NFL as an assistant or head coach. Wyche is now a volunteer assistant coach at Pickens (S.C.) High School.

Wyche said that in his last six or seven seasons as an NFL head coach he abandoned two-a-days, football’s ritualistic and somewhat sadistic method of whipping players into shape.

“You don’t have to have 11-man pileups on every play to show how tough you are and teach things,” said Wyche. “You have to have some of it, but you don’t have to have two hours of it.”

Wyche said changing practice pedagogy is hard because most high school coaches coach the way they were coached.

“A generation ago they didn’t take water breaks. You were a sissy if you had to go take water. Things are more evolved now,” said Wyche, who knew O’Neil from Wyche’s time as an NFL broadcaster.

They have to be more evolved because the concussion issue is not only a threat to the NFL, but the future of football on every level.

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